MSNBC's Dan Abrams Tags Rove 'Constitutional Crippler'

On Monday's MSNBC Live with Dan Abrams, host and MSNBC general manager Abrams opened his show lambasting Karl Rove, tagging him the "Constitutional Crippler" for accusing judges of "bending the law" while Rove, Abrams contended, was doing much the same. Abrams: "If Karl Rove had been a professional wrestler, they might have called him 'the Constitutional Crippler.' Abrams further accused Rove of "hypocrisy" and of "shifting rules to accommodate his political objectives" as the MSNBC general manager declared that he would "not shed a tear" at Rove's departure. Abrams: "He may be one of the great political operatives of all time, but from a lawyer's perspective, as someone who studied the Constitution, relishes the rule of law, appreciates our courts, I will not shed a tear at his farewell bash." (Transcript follows)

Below is a complete transcript of Dan Abrams' comments about Karl Rove from the Monday August 13 MSNBC Live with Dan Abrams, followed by Abrams' conversation with former Democratic Representative Elizabeth Holtzman, The Atlantic senior editor Josh Green, and conservative talk radio host Michael Reagan:

DAN ABRAMS: Karl Rove is out. Rove announced this morning he was resigning from the Bush administration. The man who is sometimes referred to as "Bush's brain" will leave the White House on August 31. My take. If Karl Rove had been a professional wrestler, they might have called him "the Constitutional Crippler." I'll leave his political legacy to others, although I will say I think it's foolish when searching for explanations for the 2000 Republican rout to blame Rove, the political operative, as opposed to Rove, the chief policy analyst. That was the war speaking. How the Republicans talked about it in the campaign wouldn't have changed a thing. But in terms of his legal legacy, Rove has long applied basic political strategy to the courts: Accuse your opponents or critics of engaging in the very behavior that could become your own Achilles heel. Rove has accused judges of bending the law to fit their personal agenda. It's true, some do. But I can't think of a federal judge who has done that more than Karl Rove himself.

Rove called the federal judiciary "fundamentally out of touch with mainstream America." A nice campaign slogan, but it demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of judges. They're not supposed to reflect popular opinion. It also demonstrates some hypocrisy. He cites the will of the people until, of course, it comes to the people's reaction to this administration's policy. Then he ignores it. And he even said, quote, "I'm not going to stay or leave based on whether it pleases the mob."

Rove's legacy is littered with examples of shifting rules to accommodate his own political objectives. We don't know exactly how involved he was with certain administration decisions about everything from the NSA spying to Guantanamo. We do know, according to Justice Department e-mails, that in January of 2005, Rove was asking about firing all 93 U.S. attorneys, that he passed along specific complaints about others, then reportedly advised on how to make the firings seem merit-based. And to avoid being scrutinized ever, he sent more than 140,000 e-mails through the Republican National Committee's computer system instead of through the White House, thereby circumventing federal law. That's according to a House oversight committee.

His philosophy: expand the power of the executive branch, often meaning his own power, and demean the branch of government willing to rein him in: the judicial branch. Rove used court appointments as a political carrot, privately assuring religious groups, for example, that court nominees would share their beliefs. And for the fired U.S. attorneys, it was also about politics but in the form of political punishment. He may be one of the great political operatives of all time, but from a lawyer's perspective, as someone who studied the Constitution, relishes the rule of law, appreciates our courts, I will not shed a tear at his farewell bash.

Joining me now is Elizabeth Holtzman, former Democratic congresswoman from New York, who served on the Judiciary Committee and author of the book The Impeachment of George W. Bush, Josh Green, senior editor of The Atlantic, whose cover story on Rove appears in the magazine's September issue, and on the phone, radio talk show host Michael Reagan. Thanks to all of you for coming on the program. Appreciate it.

All right, Josh, let me start with you. Is it fair to say that Karl Rove has been behind much of the legal strategy of this administration?

JOSHUA GREEN, The Atlantic Monthly: You know, I think to a degree, it is. I mean, one of the consequences of the Democrats taking over Congress in 2006 is that it pulled back a curtain and kind of let the world see just how involved Rove is at every level. I mean, certainly, the U.S. attorney scandal is a terrific example of that, the just, the kind of tawdry and shallow way that he became involved and kind of, you know, heedlessly brought politics into that process. So I would say yes.

ABRAMS: Michael, would you agree at the least that Rove is a guy who's had some level of disdain for the rule of law?

MICHAEL REAGAN, RADIO TALK SHOW HOST: No, I would, you know, what I would say is that he's someone who's been at the White House. He's been a policy man for the President. He's been involved in all the things the President's done, which is what happens when you're in charge of policy at the White House. And because the President has been under fire from the Democrats since the time he won the 2000 election, they've tried to get Karl Rove involved in everything. There's nothing wrong with Karl Rove getting involved with the 93, letting people know what his opinion is about the U.S. attorneys being fired. The fact is that every President has fired attorneys. I think the mistake maybe he made now was he didn't get all 93 fired. Then nothing happens to you. If you get eight fired, you become a news item.

ABRAMS: But the difference, well, the difference is that, in general, when U.S. attorneys are fired, it's not for strictly political reasons. I mean, it's not for, you can fire them for political reasons, it's a political appointment-

REAGAN: But you can make an argument on that, that, you know, whether it was Clinton or Reagan or whoever it was, it always could have been for political reasons. You could always try and find that in each and every thing. You talk about Bill Clinton, you know, the firing he did with U.S. attorneys that had some things to do with Whitewater or whatever. You could always find that, if that's what you're looking for. The fact is there was nothing illegal about what the President of the United States did in firing the U.S. attorneys with the NSA and with all the wiretapping.

ABRAMS: All right, but let's stick to-

REAGAN: The fact of the matter is most of America does agree with what's going on.

ABRAMS: All right, look, let's stick with Karl Rove, though, and the legacy. Elizabeth Holtzman, there's no question that there was nothing illegal. No one's suggesting that it was illegal to seek to fire all of them or to seek to fire some of them. The question isn't illegal or legal. The question is-

Former Rep. ELIZABETH HOLTZMAN (D-NY): No, no. It is the question because it's possible under some scenarios that the firing of a U.S. attorney who was, for example, investigating a Republican, and to stop that investigation, you fire that U.S. attorney, that could be an obstruction of justice and could be a crime. So to call the U.S. attorney scandal political is wrong. It could be criminal.

ABRAMS: Look, it could be, it could be. There's no evidence right now to suggest that anyone is going to open up any criminal investigations into the firing of the U.S. attorneys.

HOLTZMAN: Well, that's because they don't have enough information yet.

ABRAMS: Look, Josh Green, bring us back here for a minute. I mean, the bottom line is that, again, we're looking at Karl Rove's legacy here. I think that Elizabeth is probably on something of a fringe there in suggesting that there's going to be some sort of criminal investigation into the firings of the U.S. attorneys. Would you agree?

GREEN: Yeah, I think Rove's real crime was ineptness. I mean, he was just ham-handed in almost every way possible, and that's really what's kind of spilled out over the last couple of years. And I think that's also the reason why Rove surprised so many people in Washington and didn't stick around until the end of the Bush administration and decided to throw in the towel today.

ABRAMS: Why do you think he did that?

REAGAN: Hey, wait a minute. If I could jump in here-

ABRAMS: Well, go ahead, Michael. Yeah.

REAGAN: I mean, he's not the first person to leave an administration very late in the administration. My dad had it happen in his administration, other administrations. People leave, get their own lives in order because they know the President is a short-termer, lame duck, whatever it is. This is not new-

GREEN: But Rove had no life outside politics and outside the White House.

REAGAN: This is a man who was, you know, five times went before a grand jury on the Libby, the Scooter Libby case. Did anybody indict Rove? No. Nobody indicted Rove because they didn't see any wrongdoing. And they tried to get him on that and these leaks-

ABRAMS: Wait, wait, wait. Let's be clear, Michael. Let's not confuse the words "criminal" with "wrongdoing." They're not the same thing. Just because they, no one could be charged with a crime does not mean there wasn't any wrongdoing.

REAGAN: Where is the, where is the wrongdoing?

ABRAMS: Well, look, the question was, look, again, if you want to get into Libby, we can get into that because it does relate to Karl Rove's legacy here, now that he's stepped down. The question was, who did he leak to? Why did he do it? When did he do it? Those are all important questions-

REAGAN: But Karl Rove didn't leak anything.

ABRAMS: Look, the bottom, Karl Rove had conversations with reporters that he probably shouldn't have had. You going to deny that?

REAGAN: Do we know that?

ABRAMS: Yeah, we know for a fact that he had-

REAGAN: If he did something that was, in fact, illegal, wrongdoing, whatever it is, they certainly would have said something in the grand jury. They did not indict him, as many times as he came in there. And I think everybody is searching to say, "Oh, Karl Rove. We couldn't get George Bush. Let's get Karl Rove. Let's get him and make sure he's a criminal on the way out of the building."

ABRAMS: But again, and I'll go back to Elizabeth in a minute, but Josh, I mean, that's the difference, is just because he's not a criminal and just because he hasn't been indicted for a crime does not mean that he's not someone who we can criticize for his view of the Constitution and his position on judges and the judiciary in this country.

REAGAN: No, I think that-

ABRAMS: Wait a minute. Let me let Josh respond to that. Hang on, Michael.

GREEN: In the end, you're calling him the "Constitutional Crippler," but, you know, the one bit of poetic justice in all this is that, you know, the person Rove really ended up crippling was his own reputation. And so he leaves the White House, you know, not indicted but in many ways disgraced, I think.

ABRAMS: Elizabeth, go ahead. You want to weigh in on that?

HOLTZMAN: Well, I agree with the last comment. I also want to say that what he did with the Justice Department, although we don't know the whole story yet because this is a man who's shown complete contempt not just for Congress, not showing up even after being subpoenaed, but contempt for the Constitution, which makes Congress an equal branch of government, and it allows it to examine how the executive branch is operating. But here you have a Justice Department that was perverted for political purposes. You had U.S. attorneys who were apparently, I mean, we don't know all the facts yet, but on the surface, it seems that U.S. attorneys were replaced because they didn't go after Democrats or they were removed because they went after Republicans.

I was a prosecutor, not only a congresswoman, and I never, before prosecuting a rapist or a murderer, said, well, are you a Republican or a Democrat? I'm going to go after you if you're one, not the other. I mean, that's not what our system of justice was. And Karl Rove took our government and tried to make it all political, including things that we think are pretty sacred, like justice that's fair and not partisan and not political, but that if you've committed a crime or you haven't committed a crime, you're going to be dealt with on the merits and not on the basis of politics. So I think his legacy has been a disaster for this country.

ABRAMS: Michael, you would agree, wouldn't you, that Karl Rove has a tendency to politicize everything?

REAGAN: Well, I think people in the White House, people in government have a tendency to politicize everything. It doesn't matter if you're Democrat or Republican. When you're at that level, you do politicize everything. And he's, I think he's in trouble because he has been successful in getting the President elected, reelected again. And he seems to be the great big target in Washington, so everybody wants to jump on him. He'll be gone in a month from now. Everybody's going to forget about Karl Rove, and they're going to find somebody else to, in fact, jump on. That's the way it works in Washington, D.C.

ABRAMS: But Josh, I think that doesn't really address how significant Rove was and how significant his contributions have been to this administration and how radical, in some ways, particularly with regard to, again, I think, the legal legacy his positions have been.

GREEN: Yeah. I don't think that fixes it, by a long shot. I mean, look, there really never has been a figure in the modern American presidency quite like Karl Rove, a political adviser who had that much say not just over politics and policy but apparently over the judiciary and who acted from as raw a set of political motives as Rove obviously did. You know, Michael is of course right to say that politics are always a thought in the White House, but never were they put forward to the degree that they were in the Bush White House, and Karl Rove was the main driver of that.

ABRAMS: Elizabeth Holtzman, Michael Reagan and Josh Green, thanks a lot. Appreciate it.